Teach for America’s Troubled Relationship with Seattle Schools

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April 21, 2014; Hechinger Report and The Nation

In 2011, Teach for America and Kenneth Maldonado were both finding a home in Seattle. For TFA, 2011 marked its founding year in the city, and Kenneth had applied to be one of its first recruits. TFA had had a monumental and ongoing growth spurt and Seattle was one of its most recent additions in its scaling effort. Maldonado, who had grown up in poverty and struggled for work before his TFA assignment, was beyond excited in looking at what the experience was to bring him.

Maldonado’s experience did not start as he had hoped, and TFA’s arrival in Seattle also found challenges. According to a report shared by the Hechinger Report and The Nation, the Seattle Public School system was facing a $25 million deficit and saw more than 13,800 teachers apply for just 352 full- and part-time positions. In the midst of this, TFA obtained a contract with the district, charging over $4000 per teacher.

The new relationship quickly became an issue. Board meetings were “sometimes standing room only, dozens of community members—including parents, teachers and high school students—signed up in record numbers to testify against the district’s contract with the organization, urging the administration to hire more experienced local teachers.” Maldonado was also feeling the conflict, but also noted that TFA’s national office had stumbled in dealing with the challenges in Seattle. Maldonado said that “TFA just hadn’t done the research” and “national staff came off as ‘arrogant…they were assigning the blame to everyone but themselves.’”

TFA’s original 38 approved applicants had been reduced to just 13, serving ten schools, only three of which addressed the high-needs population, a critical part of TFA’s mission. An official with TFA cited that the issues in Seattle were a “complete aberration” by the organization.

As Teach for America has grown, several of the organization’s positions and relationships have attained national attention. TFA has sought placements for recruits in wealthier school districts where teaching jobs are scarce, and Seattle is a perfect example. This, along with other controversies, has led many to ask for TFA to be more transparent. “I’m really troubled by public dollars going to TFA at the same moment teachers are being let go,” says Gloria Ladson-Billings, a professor of education and race theory at the University of Wisconsin.

TFA in Seattle has made adjustments following the backlash. Lindsay Hill, the Seattle TFA Director, has eliminated all district fees, stating, “We have to make sure that our vision and our strategy meet our context.” Maldonado continues on in the program. He still “believes strongly in the organization,” and having worked at its summer institute in New York City in 2013, he is considering leaving the classroom for a full-time gig with TFA, something unforeseen just a few years earlier.—John Brothers

  • Terry Fernsler

    TFA has yet to respond–in Seattle or elsewhere–to the criticism of short-term teachers where long-term teachers are needed. This seems the most critical issue (with union-busting allegationsa close second) behind TFA, but they apparently feel no need to address it, in spite of the long-term effects on students.

  • Ashley

    This article does not provide a complete picture of TFA’s work in Washington state. To read a response, go here: https://www.teachforamerica.org/tfa-on-the-record/responses/april-22-2014-nation

  • Seattle Parent

    I lived through this debacle.

    Tom Stitikus, the newly hired dean of education of the University of Washington’s College of Education is a TFA alum and quite the young buck. A few years ago, when he was hired, he made it a public point of pride,and a commitment to TFA National to bring TFA to Seattle and to set up a (underwhelmingly received by staff and students alike) “alternative pathway” to teaching certification via TFA at the UW.. TFA had made it a point in its publicity that Stritikus is the first TFA alum to become a major university’s Dean of Ed. Stritikus was encouraged by the Bezos people (Amazon founder’s mother) and the Gates Foundation and their promise of funding. (But that part was pretty hush hush as there is a significant, active backlash in Seattle to their Corporate Reform philosophies around public schools.

    Long story short: TFA arrived in Seattle with a paternalistic attitude that the public not to mention much of Seattle’s citizens roundly disliked. They also didn’t appear to much like Stritikus’s style or cramming of the TFA program into the UW. On top of that, as reported, the economy was bad, great certified teachers with much experience were in overabundance and TFA offered little appealing to Seattle Public Schools. It didn’t offer a wealth of culturally competent or culturally diverse personnel. It didn’t offer expertise in harder to place positions. It certainly didn’t offer a clear advantage to closing the achievement gap.

    The people of Seattle and the personnel of SPS and the UW protested rightly and rightly so. The people of Seattle also called baloney on a state legislature that has massively underfunded its public schools and is now under court order to fix the situation. Bringing in “new young blood” when the state hasn’t funded the system to begin with simply didn’t wash with the well-educated populace.

    TFA was loathe to admit it started off on the wrong foot. In fact it never really has done so. It hasn’t recovered from its initial misstep and I doubt it will ever do so.

    P.S. The state of Washington is full of low performing districts. Districts far more underfunded and understaffed and downright hurting with huge economic and cultural challenges, but did you or do you see TFA offering to help out? No. Why? Because it’s all about giving the “cool kids” their internship in a highly desirable city (Seattle). Again, no love lost for TFA and many of us in Seattle are eager for the story here to make it out to the rest of the country, so that other cities can be a little more thoughtful on whether TFA is really an asset – or just a resume builder for its kids.

  • Charlie Mas

    Teach for America makes a lot of sense in the parts of the country where there is a teacher shortage. There is no teacher shortage in Washington State, and certainly not in Seattle. Bringing TFA to Seattle was like sending CARE packages to Beverly Hills.

  • Patrick

    Certified teachers spend 2 years getting a master’s degree, the most useful part of which is a year student teaching getting lots of feedback from the experienced teacher in the same room and from their instructors. TFA teachers get none of that. They get a bachelor’s in some unrelated subject and five weeks of training that’s not in front of an actual classroom.

    By the end of the second year teaching, most teachers are really getting good. But that’s when TFA teachers contracts are up. Almost all of them leave the classroom after their two years, most to unrelated private sector jobs and a few to educational administration. TFA turns teaching into a charity that their teachers do for a couple of years before their career starts, when what the schools need is committed, career teachers.

    And TFA has the gall to charge several thousands of dollars as a placement fee, on top of the teacher’s salary. In Seattle, that’s been paid by wealthy but clueless philanthropists who send their kids to private schools. They could do so much better paying for counselors or aids or summer school for students who have fallen behind.

  • Charlie Mas

    You are correct, Ashley. This article did not provide a complete picture of TFA in Washington.

    It didn’t include the trouble created at the University of Washington (or the money misspent there) when the special, TFA only, teacher education program was forced open by the TFA-alum dean of that school.

    It didn’t include the little wine parties with the Seattle Public Schools staff and TFA staff.

    It didn’t include the District’ staff’s efforts to misrepresent TFA to the Board.

    It didn’t include any description of how the state law for conditional teacher certification was subverted by TFA.

    There was a lot about how TFA came to Washington and to Seattle that was left out of this article.\

    Finally, the article did not sufficiently stress the fact that TFA was expecting to place up to 50 teachers a year in Washington and expecting to place 20 to 25 in Seattle alone, but only placed 13 teachers statewide in the first year a comparable number in the second year, and almost none in the third year.

  • Michael Elliot

    Mark Naison takes on Teach For America and their corrosive effect on America’s Public Education System. It’s in the EDUCATION NEWS!